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Sunset Park gets landmarked after 30-year fight

The city Landmarks Preservation Commission designated four sections of Sunset Park as historic districts on Tuesday, in a show of respect for housing built for Brooklyn’s working-class immigrants.

Blocks of brownstone, limestone and brick rowhouses constructed between 1885 and 1912 will now have a measure of protection against the construction of finger buildings — those modern multi-family properties that are taller than the rowhouses on either side of them. (They make the block look like a hand flipping the bird.) Historic-district houses cannot be demolished without the commission’s permission.

The LPC’s decision was a victory for activists who began campaigning in the 1980sto win landmark status for their neighborhood. The Sunset Park Landmarks Committee took up the fight several years ago.

“After 30 years of advocacy, finally!” activist Joseph Svehlak shouted amid applause after commissioners unanimously voted to designate Sunset Park North, Central Sunset Park, Sunset Park 50th Street and Sunset Park South as historic districts. He was among those who started pushing for landmarking in the 1980s.

Svehlak told the Brooklyn Eagle he hopes that in the future, the LPC will consider creating a fifth Sunset Park historic district for blocks from 40th to 43rd streets between Fourth and Fifth avenues.

Landmarks Chairperson Sarah Carroll thanked Sunset Park residents after the vote for their “hard work and advocacy.”

More than 3,000 neighborhood residents signed a pro-landmarking petition, and more than 400 homeowners wrote letters of support.

The creation of historic districts “reassures us that our homes will keep the integrity of their original architecture,” Cynthia Felix, who lives in the newly created Sunset Park 50th Street Historic District, told the Eagle after the decision.

“We’re not against development,” Felix said. “But we need a balance between new and old.”

Sunset Park was mostly farmland until the 1890s. The arrival of big employers on its waterfront, especially Bush Terminal, spurred residential construction.

Houses in the new historic districts were designed in the upscale architectural styles of their day, including Romanesque Revival and Renaissance Revival.

But they were usually two stories tall or two stories on top of elevated basements, which made them smaller than the housing in wealthy neighborhoods.

And Sunset Park houses were often designed as two-family residences to make them affordable for working-class residents.

After the vote, Sunset Park Landmarks Committee member Rachel Carmean told the Eagle she’s “thrilled.”

“It has taken a long time,” Carmean said. “But it has come to fruition and I’m happy. We wanted to save our neighborhood.”

The new historic districts are located between Fourth and Seventh avenues and 44th and 59th streets. There are more than 500 buildings in the four areas.

“The Landmarks Preservation Commission has made a very positive contribution to our neighborhood’s sense of well-being and the strength of our community,” Lee Chabowski, a resident of the Sunset Park 50th Street Historic District, told the Eagle.

About 30 preservation advocates and Sunset Park residents testified at an LPC hearing in May about their neighborhood’s urgent need for landmarking. A handful of Sunset Park residents at the hearing said they object to landmarking because they want to be able to develop their properties.

The commission put the four historic districts onto its calendar for designation consideration back in January.


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